Photo: Phil Sharp

The front cover of Cat Power’s new record is a candid snapshot – Chan Marshall and her young son in the bedroom of their house as a guitar topples over and she catches it. It’s an image that had been stored on her phone until the record label asked for the artwork. “I had no single concept, so I thought ‘I’ll just use this picture’. I didn’t analyse it, I just cropped it and wrote the word Wanderer with my finger.”

It’s only now that she can see what the image represents. “It’s a symbol of strength. With my words and guitar I’ve been able to survive and travel the world and meet people who told me that I made a difference in their life, which makes me feel not alone, which gives me the fortitude to not feel fucking mixed up and crazy and alone on this planet. And my son is the greatest gift of my life, the truest love I’ve ever felt and I never knew I deserved. And then my silhouette is myself – this is my life right now and I’m fine with it.”

“When I make music I thrive on my intuition – it becomes a meditation, the vibration resonates through your bones. it becomes part of your heartbeat.”

That she’s fine is good to hear – for the six-year journey that led to Wanderer has been a complicated, dramatic one. In 2012, a few days after the release of last album Sun, Marshall was hospitalised. “I had so much pressure trying to make a hit record, spent my life savings trying to control the process, that my immune system collapsed.”

She was diagnosed with hereditary angioedema, an immune disorder that causes swelling of the face and throat. Thankfully, after a year of postponed gigs, she found a homeopath who helped to stop the swelling. Life however, as it likes to do, continued and transformed, and there was soon more life-changing news. “I was dating someone for 5 months, then we split up and I found out I was pregnant.” She moved back to Miami and, two years after fearing that she was on the brink of dying, Marshall gave birth to her son.

Chan talks openly about everything she’s been through, her voice as rich and evocative as it is on record. She shows me pictures of her little boy; she mimics the people walking past in the busy hotel foyer. It’s clear, though, she’s been through a lot – “it definitely feels like six years.” She takes her time, making sure she picks the right words, her voice sometimes drifting off without finishing answers if she can’t find them. It’s this deliberation that inspired Wanderer and the decision to move record labels. “With Sun I wanted to hear outer space, but with this I wanted to hear the space within.”

“I was told by my ex-record label I needed a hit record and I did that with Sun. So when I gave them this record and they said they didn’t like it, it was just like ‘Say what?’. I think having my kid gave me more of a put my foot down vibration. I didn’t want to injure the songs with the idea of making a hit record, I wanted to protect whatever it is the universe wanted me to make. Because when I make music I thrive on my intuition – it  becomes a meditation, the vibration resonates through your bones, it becomes part of your heartbeat.”

The cosmic way she talks of her craft is reminiscent of the American poet, Ruth Stone, who, as she worked in the fields, would feel a poem coming at her over the landscape; and run to the farmhouse to write the words down before they escaped. It’s the same for Chan: “There’s a passing melody train in my head and I have to jump on it and just start singing. It’s like there’s something my subconscious needs to create and I don’t know why or for what. I have to rush to find the tape recorder with the batteries in.”

And so we have Wanderer, her tenth studio album – pure and unflinching songs that eschew the synths of Sun and revert back to guitar, piano and that voice. The journey to the record began in Miami as Chan set up her house as a recording studio– with pianos in bedrooms, and amps on wooden floors.  “The first thing I recorded was ‘If I had a dime for every time.’” That’s the first line from ‘Woman’ – the defiant, shimmering song you’ve probably heard that features Lana Del Rey, her recent touring partner. Yet it’s a song that nearly never saw the light of day. “I wasn’t sure it belonged sonically, so I didn’t deliver Woman [to Matador]. But then when Domino came into the picture and they loved the record, I said ‘Er, can I add a song to the record?’.”

She knew from the moment she met Lana that they had a kinship. “I’d met Lana years ago. She’s a beautiful woman and a beautiful spirit and being on tour with her was incredible. At one show she’d done something I’d never heard her do which wasn’t in a range that you’d hear that would be conducive to country and soul and I was like ‘what the fuck was that?’. She didn’t do it again and after the show I said ‘What are you hiding?’”

“I knew she’d lend the song that resonating, divine feminine quality that I thought it needed. I’m very happy it’s on the record now.”

As the album developed the wandering continued. Always politically vocal, she began to focus on that world and how she could make a difference. “I started to become completely distracted by things other than music. I was trying to develop this information society called Occuparty which would have been tri-partisan awareness to try and help boost the possibility of third party representation – we even found an office in Atlanta.”

“But then I discovered I was pregnant so the thing that I’d been working towards was on the table in a do or die way and I had to make a decision. What was I going to choose? Become a freakazoid and work on everything try to help everyone. It’s a great burden on a child to be born if I decided to do that. I asked myself what was I capable of doing, so I chose life and I’m so grateful I did.”

While all this was happening the album slowly began to take shape. She spent time in a studio that Diplo had recommended in Miami (“He put ‘Free’ on a mixtape years ago”) and then moved to LA. It was here that another pop star entered the album’s story. “A few years ago an ex-lover picked me up from the airport. I opened the door and ‘Stay’ by Rihanna came on. He said ‘There’s my girl’ and I thought he was talking about me but he was talking about her,” she explains. “Then when I was about to go to LA to record I was in a cab and I heard the whole song right through for the first time and I was crying and I learned why millions of people love her.”

The song took on deeper resonance, reminding her of a friend who had passed away. “When I was singing I could feel him there in the room, right there in my chest.”

There were other moments when kismet and serendipity seemed to lend a hand on the record, and particularly that song. “When we were recording ‘Stay’ I heard trumpets in my head – and then a few hours later I heard a guy next door playing. So I knocked on the door and I said ‘Hi, would you be interested in playing on this song I’m working on?’”

“It was just a small part, I  knew the notes I needed. Just a horn pass over a certain part. He came over. He was shy, he wouldn’t make eye contact. He started with the passes and did the end, exactly those notes I wanted.”

The horn player left after agreeing to do it for $200. Then there was a knock on the door ten minutes later. His manager. He explained that the guy next door actually plays with Kanye and Chance the Rapper. “I thought ‘Fuck’. He asked my name. “I said Cat Power’. I get it. We’re talking about royalties. I said, ‘We’re just in the middle of working on this song can we talk later.’ I gave him my number and address.”

Then 10 seconds later there was another knock on the door: it was the trumpet player. “He was smiling and making eye contact. ‘Can I take a photo and get an autograph – my parents are huge big fans’. We took a selfie for his parents. He said ‘$200 is fine’.”

Our conversation is punctuated by both these kinds of stories: tragic goodbyes but also brilliant, bright moments of optimism – there’s a resolve that burns through the music. I ask if she sees it as a hopeful album. “I do. I know that there’s a lot of questioning but I think that’s part of what art does and hopefully there’s some language that people understand and can move on into the universe. That’s why when Aretha Franklin sings you feel healed, we don’t have words to explain why that happens, that connective quality.”

“I’m so proud of myself that I love my life now, that I didn’t turn away from hope.”

She also talks of Patti Smith’s advice that it’s a musician’s responsibility to speak the truth. “We might be judged on it but tough shit you’re not going to lose your job or whatever so you need to speak the truth.”

And Chan certainly seems more at ease with who she is and being a musician. “I used to be so ashamed of being a musician because it felt like snobbish. So I just told people ‘I’m just a waitress’ then, later, ‘I’m just a writer’.”

This guilt seemed to affect her during her turbulent early career. The legend grew – with some notes of truth – of an artist prone to breakdowns, stage fright, and profound insecurity. It was crystallised in early albums, like 1998’s beautiful, stark Moon Pix. This year she returned to play that album in full for an anniversary show in Australia. “That Sydney show was super-duper special for me – more potent than winning any Grammy award. I had to step into the suit, of myself, the person who wrote that stuff. I remembered a lot about that person – how she was fight or flight, and trying to maintain resilience. I felt completely lost as many people do when they’re growing up,” she says softly, pausing. “I guess the trick to being happy is to go through it.”

“I could have been really sad and felt lost when the relationship terminated with my ex-boyfriend but I couldn’t cos I had stable grounding because of the strength that my son provides me with love.”

“That’s the biggest life lesson that being a parent has taught me – I don’t need people who don’t have my best interests at heart anymore. There are  humans I have loved that didn’t love me back but because I’ve loved them I kept them in my life until I realised these people don’t actually love me. Once I realised that that was easy, I didn’t have to think twice. I realised what was most important going forward and I guess it takes people a long time to figure it out,” she lets out a nervous laugh. “If they figure it out at all.”

“I’m so proud of myself that I love my life now, that I didn’t turn away from hope.” Listening to Wanderer you can hear that hard-won hope – the sound of life – pulsing through it.

Cat Power releases her new album, Wanderer, October 5th via Domino.